'Fantastic' lead performance empowers Chilean Oscar nominee
Posted February 6, 2018 4:41 p.m. EST
The title of the film ``A Fantastic Woman'' only means what you first think it does once you get to know its heroine, a transgender singer named Marina Vidal, who is dismissed, denigrated and worse for living what others believe is a ``fantasy'' existence in Santiago, Chile.
Directed by Sebastian Lelio and nominated for an Oscar this year for best foreign language film, ``A Fantastic Woman'' is masterfully deceptive and even enigmatic.
The plot is familiar to the point of being predictable, and Lelio takes his time allowing us to see who Marina Vidal really is. Marina (transgender actress Daniela Vega) has just moved in with her older lover, Orlando Ornetto (Francisco Reyes), when he suffers an aneurysm and dies after she rushes him to the hospital.
Orlando's family knows who she is and have never understood why Orlando gave up a ``normal'' life to take up with a transgender woman. For a while after Orlando's death, Marina seems lost, almost unsure of what to do. Orlando's ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) and son Bruno (Nicolas Saavedra) want her gone from Orlando's apartment and erased from the memory of their husband and father. When Marina meets Sonia in a parking garage to hand over the keys to Orlando's car, Sonia is cold, dismissive. ``What are you,'' she asks. Bruno's attitude is worse.
Through all of this, including dehumanizing treatment by the police who suspect she may have had something to do with Orlando's death, Marina is stoic. We get little insight into what she is thinking for a while. She is humiliated and degraded again and again, but contains her emotions.
Is it strength that allows her to endure this treatment, or is she afraid to stand up for who she is? The latter would make her a martyr and for a time, that's what Lelio wants us to consider.
Lelio uses the familiarity of the plot and the detachment of Vega's extraordinary performance to keep us guessing about why Marina is allowing herself to be so degraded.
In the end, this is a film about entitlement. Orlando's family thinks Marina is out to milk the estate for everything she can get. For them, she is not entitled to any of it.
But the entitlement Marina is pursuing is of a much different and more significant kind. It is the entitlement to be who she is.
The film would only be very good were it not for Vega's performance, which ranks right up there with the five women nominated for best actress this year and, in some cases, surpasses them. The performance is understated, restrained, because this is who Marina is. In fact, the character is often silent as she makes her way through a hostile world. Yet even without dialogue, we feel her constant wariness, a very human mix of determination and fear. Even her grief is restrained, as if she knows there are those who don't believe she has a right to mourn her lover. It's one thing to be strong and determined when there is nothing to fear. But to be strong and determined when there are those in the world who would deny you the right to exist is not only courageous, it is fantastic.
David Wiegand is an assistant managing editor and the TV critic of The San Francisco Chronicle.
3 STARS OUT OF 4 STARS A Fantastic Woman, drama, in Spanish with English subtitles, starring Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes (Rated R, for language and sexual content; 100 minutes)